Quartz India interviewed me about my book Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper.
My book was reviewed in the Indian Express.
The Hindustan Times published an excerpt of my book Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper.
My book was featured in Indian Today.
The Wire published an excerpt of my book Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper.
Hindustan Times, a Indian daily newspaper, selected my book Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper as one of their top picks.
FirstPost published an excerpt of my book Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper.
Mid-Day, a Indian daily newspaper interviewed me about my book: Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India’s First Newspaper.
On January 7, 2018, Mid-Day featured my book.
Two years is a short time. So what did Hicky do after his newspaper?
He spent the years from 1781 to 1784 in jail. Unable to pay his debts (at this time in history, prisoners had to pay for their own food and lodging in jail, leading to a vicious cycle of debt and a lifetime in prison) Hicky had no hopes of freedom.
On Christmas 1784, as one of his last acts just a month before he resigned his post as Governor General of India, Warren Hastings freed Hicky from jail. Now that the Governor General was leaving, he had nothing left to fear, should Hicky restart his newspaper.
Hicky did not restart his newspaper. He couldn’t even if he wanted to. In March 1782 – after Hicky had been in jail for nine months but was still printing his Bengal Gazette — the Supreme Court ordered the Sheriff of Calcutta to seize Hicky’s types and printing press. These were then sold at auction to, out of all people, his hated pro government rival newspaper, the India Gazette.
What Hicky did in his later years has been an enduring mystery to me, and one that I expended every effort to find out. I have followed every lead, dug deep into every archive, and searched for materials that have been lost for centuries. But I am no closer to finding out than I was when I started this project in August 2011.
All I know are the bare facts that: 1. Hicky was listed as “Dr. J.A. Hicky” in the Bengal Directory, the yellow pages of old Calcutta. 2. He had in his possession when he died large quantities of liquor and Chinese porcelain, so he was either an alcoholic or trading on the side. 3. He died on a ship going to Canton, China, backing up point two.
In 1792 Hicky posted an advertisement in the India Gazette (The same India Gazette as before, but under different management I know this because there are government records over the payment of an advertisement Hicky placed in the India Gazette. Why did he advertise? What was he advertising for? Could this be the key to unlock what Hicky was doing for the twenty years after his newspaper? Could it lead to more discoveries?
I don’t think I will ever find out. Other leads like this have also had dead ends. There are no surviving copies of the India Gazette for 1792 (that I know of). It’s another mystery that I think will never be solved.
On July 9, 2015, the Telegraph published an article on Justice John Hyde’s legal notebooks. Hyde’s notebooks comprise one of the only remaining sources of British India’s first Supreme Court. I am working with Carol Johnson at the New Jersey Institute of Technology to decode and analyze his cipher, which he used to record intrigue and corruption during his time.
There is an interesting part in Hicky’s trials where the Chief Justice, Elijah Impey, says to the jury in his closing remarks, “Hicky is a man among the dregs of the people. He keeps sepoys at his house.”
I have a couple problems with this:
1. These are the last words a jury is going to hear before deciding guilty or not guilty. It doesn’t sound very impartial for a Chief Justice to be calling a defendant human backwash.
2. Apparently renting out your house to dirty, smelly, scary Indians makes you a worthless human being.
This is not unusual for 18th century British India. But, imagine if a prosecutor could say today that you shouldn’t trust a defendant because they are Pakistani-American, and you just don’t know what him or his “people” could do, and the jury would believe that.
In Sarah Koenig’s podcast, Serial, about the conviction of 17 year old Adnan Sayed for murder, the prosecutor said that Adnan killed his ex-girlfriend because of his culture. “He became enraged. He felt betrayed that his honor had been besmirched. And he became very angry and he set out to kill Hae.”
This argument was backed up by a report the police commissioned from an “expert” consultant group on Islamic Thought: “It is acceptable for a Muslim man to control the actions of a woman by completely eliminating her,” read the report. “Within this harsh culture, he has not violated any code — he has defended his honor.”
The jurors said that Adnan’s religion did not affect their decision. But their statements indicated otherwise. “I’m not sure [about] the cultures over there, how they treat their women. He just wanted control and she wouldn’t give it to him,” one juror said. Another said that when the jurors were deliberating one was saying, “They were trying to talk about his culture, and Arabic culture. Men rule, not women.” (Serial, Episode 10, Around Minutes 8 – 12)
That’s just blatant racism. Also, Adnan was born and raised in Maryland.
The more involved my reading becomes, the more I see modern parallels of institutionalized racism, and how unfair nearly everything happened to be for you if you happened to be poor. You didn’t stand a chance (you still don’t really stand much chance) and no one except the disenfranchised seemed to realize this.
The day before I left Kolkata, I gave a talk at Presidency University in Kolkata in which I summarized my research and the work I had been doing for 13 months in the city. It was a great presentation and I got many questions during and after it. The student and professor interest was heartening to my work. Frankly, I was surprised: who would care to show up to someone presenting on an aspect of Indian history from 200 years ago? Certainly people would have better things to do with their time.
After the talk, a number of the students from the History Department, who invited me, also invited me to have tea/coffee with them, which I gratefully accepted. We had a discussion on the comparative difficulties, opportunities and challenges of research in the US and India. It was rewarding and informative–I know little about the affects that studying at an Indian institutions would have on the ability of one to do research. The students informed me that the lack of resources and opportunities to do independent research (the expectation is less on independent research and more on classroom learning) creates mediocrity.
One of the students came to me and told me that the Kolkata Municipal Corporation indeed has an archive! I had asked through my contacts at the Fulbright Office in Kolkata who came back resolutely and said there was no archive. Now, I am upset with myself for never having gone in person to investigate, and with other people who have been too lazy to tell me they don’t know rather than to make up answers.
This has happened before though: People at the Victoria Memorial have assured me beyond any doubt that records I had been looking for were absolutely at the Supreme Court of India. But when I arrived at the Supreme Court, they said they had nothing. I can only describe it as an infuriating and painful experience to spend weeks applying to locations for permission only to realize I have been lied to because people either think they are being helpful but don’t know what they are talking about, or are too lazy to check.
What is there at the Municipal Corps Archive? Does it actually exist? What am I missing? Are the minutes of the Supreme Court there? (I am fairly confident these still exist somewhere. The British library has a few volumes, the High Court does, with maybe more in a forgotten basement, and the Victoria Memorial a few more. I find it hard to believe these have been thrown out; the British were so good with record keeping!) These are all questions I desperately want answers to, but I think only future scholars will be able to find out. My turn is over.
Nevertheless, I thank Presidency University’s student history group for their time!
Edit: Turns out the Bar Library (Room 1) of the High Court has only law reports. But they do have some very interesting, and I assume very rare booklets on the proceedings of the Sudder Dewanee Adadaults (Sadr Diwani Adalat — Indian Courts established by Warren Hastings. One of the first British attempts to standardize Hindu and Islamic justice)! There are 5 rooms in told and I need special permissions to visit each one, so I can only assume that rooms 2-5 would have more of the same. But who really knows?
I had this terrible sinking feeling that what I have been searching for the last four months – these Minutes of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William – may have been under my nose the whole time, in the High Court of Calcutta Bar Library.
When I went into Jadavpur University on Thursday I got to see the entirety of what has been digitized of Hyde’s Notebooks, and I saw they came from the Calcutta High Court Bar Library. (I went to see what copies of Hyde’s Notebooks may contained shorthand that was not in the Microfilmed version at the National Library–and I found some!) But of course, while at the High Court, no one had told me such a thing, or that the Bar Library has old records. If the Bar Library had Hyde’s Notebooks, what else could it have?
I know these documents should still exist, but the question has always been where? Have they been thrown out or lost, or have they been at the Bar Library all along?
I go Tuesday to investigate, only two days before I leave Calcutta.
The Supreme Court of India and the Nehru Memorial.
1911 is the last date that the Minutes of the Supreme Court of Fort William, which was British India’s highest legal body from 1774-1862, are known to exist. They were transferred out of the Court, some to the Victoria Memorial. It has been my goal to find them. I believe they contain records of the trials of James Augustus Hicky, the founder of Asia’s first newspaper, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette.
I got my visa extension on Monday, August 4. On Tuesday I bought a train ticket to Delhi. On Wednesday I left, and on Thursday I arrived, dropped my bags at Johnny and Raj’s Green Park apartment and went straight to the Supreme Court of India, armed with my letter requesting permission to research in their archives.
What I found was much different than the High Court of Calcutta. In Delhi you can’t enter the Supreme Court of India’s premises without being invited in by someone inside, so I couldn’t submit my “humble petition” to the registrar personally. And therein lay the second problem: which registrar would I submit my letter to? The Supreme Court has 8+ registrars, double that number sub registrars and additional registrars to boot. Where was my letter to go and who in the Court is supposed to have authority for overseeing it?
Nevertheless, I submitted my letter and documentation to the clerks outside, and called the next to see if anyone had received it. I had already called a friend of a friend (Thank you Abhishek) who’s relative is a powerful bureaucrat and who assured me if I have any problems to let her know.
In India, there are two ways of doing anything. There’s the by-the-books follow the rules, and there’s the “who do you know.” There’s a hindi word for this “jugaar” which means “get it done.” Doesn’t matter how.
By Saturday it became apparent that no one had my letter. It was lost somewhere in the warren of paper. And on Monday, when the Court reopened I got creative. After an hour on the phone and numerous missed connections later, I was on the line with the Director of the Supreme Court’s library.
“Sure you can come in,” he said.
“But, sir, I need a photo ID pass as a guest, and I have been refused it.”
“That is no problem. Go to the Public Relations Officer and he will make you a pass. I will call him now and he will get it done.”
I arrived, the PRO summoned his officers over, they did the work quickly, and that was it. I was in.
Not knowing which way to go—for there are no signs in the Supreme Court—I picked the first staircase on the right, when up a flight, turned left, and there I was, right in front of the Library. I met with the director. He said they didn’t have the minutes.
“Is it possible to visit the archive personally?” I asked.
“No” he said
So I left, took another flight of stairs up and wandered to the end of a dead-end hallway where I saw a sign that said, “Deputy Registrar (Research). Should I go in? I thought.
I knocked and opened the door, and was greeted by an oxford educated lawyer who the Court had just brought in last month to make the process easier for researchers. This is the guy I’m looking for, I thought. A couple of phone calls later, we had the Archive/Records Room director on the line.
“Sure” he said, you can come and visit the archives.”
I went down below Court Room 5, He had my letter in front of him when I arrived. He said that the Court throws out all of its records every year, and digitizes them. Moreover, they have no records before 1937. And no records were ever transferred to the Supreme Court. (Neither the National Archives, nor the Nehru Memorial, where I also went this week have them.)
So the search for the Minutes of the Supreme Court of Judicature of Fort William continues.
Last weekend we—Carrie, Sheela and I—went to Dakshineswar (pronounced like DoKKin-swor in Bangla) and Belur Meth, two holy sites in the far north of Kolkata.
Dakshineswar was crowded and disturbing. Dead crows, security guards throwing garbage on some of the women who were cleaning it. And some very distressed, desperate people. One women was crawling along the ground inside the temple as a form of penance. I don’t think I’ve felt my whiteness as much as when a number of beggar-children approached me on the ghat outside.
We took an open ferry ride across the Hooghly from Dakshineswar. Saw a dead dog, bloated, floating down the river.
Belur Math was closed, but still, it was certainly worth taking that ferry ride.
Dakshineswar was something I’d been meaning to see for a long time, so I’m thankful Sheela took the initiative to have us see it.